Gravel Cycling Guide – Choosing Bicycles and Gear

By Jiri Kaloc

Whether you’re traversing scenic backroads or challenging yourself on off-road terrain, having the right gravel bike and gear is crucial for a smooth and enjoyable experience. This guide will help you select the perfect bike, essential gear, and additional equipment to ensure your rides are safe and comfortable.

Choosing a gravel bike

Gravel bikes should be versatile to handle mixed-terrain rides. They should combine features of road bikes, mountain bikes, and cyclocross bikes. The goal is to have a bike that allows for a comfortable, stable, and efficient ride on various surfaces, including gravel, dirt, and pavement. Here are the key features to look for in a gravel bike:

  • Frame material: You can get a gravel bike made from steel, aluminium, carbon, and titanium. Aluminium is a good option for beginners because it offers a good balance of performance, durability, and affordability. It is lighter than steel and less expensive than carbon or titanium.
  • Tyre clearance: Tyre clearance is the most recognizable difference between road and gravel bikes. Wider tyre clearance allows for larger, more cushioned tyres, providing better grip and comfort on rough surfaces.
  • Gearing options: Gravel bikes should have lower gear ratios for easier climbing on steep, off-road terrain. Consider your local terrain and personal preferences when selecting gearing.
  • Brake types: Disc brakes, both mechanical and hydraulic, are typically preferred for their superior stopping power and modulation in various conditions.

Proper fit is crucial for comfort and efficiency. You should test ride multiple different sizes, and consider a professional bike fit if you’re planning long gravel rides. When it comes to budget, prioritize features important to you but don’t be stingy with a good frame, disc brakes, and gearing options – you will be happy you have those. You can save money on affordable handlebars, stems, and seat posts, which are easily upgradable later. You also don’t need high-end wheelsets in the beginning.

Gravel cycling
Gravel cycling got its name because it involves riding on unpaved, gravel roads and trails. It’s a rapidly growing sport that combines elements of road cycling, mountain biking, and adventure cycling. It typically involves riding on a road bike or a cyclocross bike that is equipped with wider tires to handle the rougher terrain. © Profimedia

Essential gravel cycling gear

Before you head out on the first gravel ride on your new bike, you should do a gear check. Here is a list of gear that you’ll absolutely need.

  • Helmet – If you’re buying a helmet for gravel, look for those with an adjustable retention system for a snug fit, ample vents for airflow, and a visor for added sun protection and debris deflection.
  • Cycling shoes – A good pair of gravel cycling shoes combines the efficient power transfer of road shoes with the off-bike comfort and traction of mountain bike shoes.
  • Weather-appropriate clothing – It helps to have moisture-wicking and breathable layers that can be easily added or removed as needed. If budget allows, invest in waterproof and windproof outer layers for unpredictable weather conditions that are common on long gravel trips.
  • Water bottles or hydration packs – Staying hydrated is essential during long gravel rides. Hydration packs allow you to carry more water, up to 3 litres. If you find it less comfortable to carry a pack on your back, go for water bottles. They allow you to take both clear water and a sports drink.

Customizing your ride

There are a few other things worth considering once you get into gravel cycling. For example, what type of tyres, pedals, and storage options to choose.

Gravel tyres vary in width, tread pattern, and casing construction. Wider tyres offer better comfort and grip, while narrower ones are faster on smoother surfaces. Tread patterns range from minimal for hard-packed gravel to aggressive for loose or muddy conditions. Your decision should be mainly guided by your local terrain and riding conditions. You should also consider the tyre pressure because it affects grip, rolling resistance, and comfort. Lower pressures increase grip and comfort but may increase the risk of pinch flats.

With gravel cycling, you have to make a difficult choice between clipless and flat pedals. Clipless pedals provide better power transfer and efficiency but require compatible shoes and cleats. Flat pedals offer ease of use and versatility, with no special shoes needed. Beginners may prefer flat pedals for simplicity, while more experienced riders might choose clipless pedals for improved performance.

Gravel cycling also lends itself really well to bikepacking. If you are thinking about giving that a try, you should think about expanding your storage options with frame bags, seat packs, and handlebar bags. That way you can put heavier items in the frame bag and lighter items in the seat pack and handlebar bag to maintain good stability and handling.

Choosing the right gravel bike and gear is fundamental to making the most of your gravel cycling adventures. With a well-prepared setup, you’ll be ready to tackle any terrain and explore the beauty of the great outdoors.